I suppose it's best to start with an admission: There's a time and a place for just about everything. Even Velveeta. Yep, it's the not-so-secret ingredient in this dish that makes it what it is.
My mom gifted me a recipe binder years ago, filled to the brim with family dishes, laminated and all. And next to the quantity for Velveeta, she has written in parentheses ("that's right, Velveeta-- no substitutes!"), as if already predicting that her daughter would protest.
But I'll hand it to her. There's something downright delicious about the Velveeta in these grits. It's creamier than a straight up cheddar-style cheese, in a buttery, heavy cream-laden kind of way. In this application, the Velveeta just, well, works. And when it bakes, it stays creamy, and adds a richness to the grits that makes for a recipe undeniably worthy of handing down.
There's this great distinction between the crispy cheesy top layer and the gooey cheesy middle. So while you don't need to bake it (omit the egg if you don't), there's something that makes it just a little more intriguing when it spends some time in the oven. If you'd like even more color on the top, throw it under your broiler for a few minutes when it comes out of the oven.
When the casserole bakes, expect some seriously toasty, cheesy aromas in the kitchen. The grits are equally good the next day, with a fried egg over top for breakfast. It makes a great side dish for any season, really. This time of year, I'd serve it alongside a simple salad and a quick summer succotash or saute of tomatoes, corn, and fresh herbs. I've served it with fried green tomatoes, too. It's a simple dish to assemble ahead of time and then throw in the oven when you're ready for it. You could fold in some cooked sausage or greens if you want to add some heft to it. It'd be nice served chicken, too, be it fried or roasted. The possibilities are pretty endless. Just don't forget the Velveeta.
Cheesy Grits with Green ChilesServes 6
1 cup grits
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter
8 ounces Velveeta, cubed
1/4 cup milk
2 (4-ounce) cans diced green chiles or jalepenos, drained and rinsed
Grated cheddar or parmesan, for garnish (optional)
Fresh herbs, such as basil, chives, or parsley, for garnish (optional)
Preheat oven to 350°F.
In a large pot over high heat, bring 4 cups water and 1 teaspoon salt to a boil. Whisking constantly, gradually add grits. Cook, whisking occasionally, until grits are cooked, about 20 minutes. Refer to package instructions for timing, as cooking time varies depending on the coarseness of grits. If necessary, add additional water 1/2 cup at a time if grits seem too thick. They should have the consistency of porridge.
When grits are cooked, add butter and Velveeta. Whisk to combine until fully incorporated. Let cool slightly, about 5 minutes. In a small bowl, combine milk, egg, and green chiles. Stir into the warm grits. Season to taste with additional salt if necessary.
Transfer to a greased 9x13-inch casserole dish. Smooth top with small offset spatula and transfer to oven.
Bake until puffed and golden, about 50 minutes. Serve immediately with additional cheese and herbs. Can also be served at room temperature.
Nora Singley used to be a cheesemonger and the Director of Education at Murray's Cheese Shop in New York City. She is currently a TV Chef on The Martha Stewart Show.
(Images: Nora Singley)